Houses of Oireachtas: 'free-fees' scheme

The Houses of the Oireachtas have spent almost €160,000 paying for staff university fees since 2008.

According to new figures, €93,878 was spent in 2008 when 41 staff members or members of the Dáil and Seanad decided to avail of the "free-fees" scheme. To date this year, 28 people have received a total of €63,602 towards taking up a part-time or further-education course in Ireland's top universities.

Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president Peter Mannion described the cost as "a lot of money" and said the scheme should be rolled out beyond Leinster House.

"We are talking about a significant amount of money here, and I would question why members of the Dáil are getting this special deal when other areas do not. A lot of people working in the public sector such as nurses and doctors can't avail of this and can't afford to pursue further education," he said.

Fine Gael spokesperson for education Brian Hayes said he welcomed the idea of making education more readily available through such schemes.

"It's a good thing, and I do think we must provide the option of further education for members and staff of the Oireachtas. I would agree it should be spread across the board to include the public service though."

According to a spokesman for the Oireachtas, the scheme aimed "to assist the development of new management and operational skills, foster new ways of working and to improve workplace performance. Expenditure on post-entry education is an investment in order to enhance the public service to meet the challenges facing it."

Specific guidelines were in place for the initiative, he said. "All courses must lead to a second- or third-level educational, professional or vocational qualification directly relevant to the requirements of the office, or a qualification in a language other than English.

"They must also be provided by a recognised educational institute or professional body and be pursued primarily in employees' own time."